Smoothly Add Beginners into a Mixed Level Class

There are so many different ways to set up and run aerial yoga classes. There’s no one perfect method for everyone. Today, I’ll dive into a question I often get asked by new teachers, “Should I have a separate class for beginners?”

Before diving in, I want to emphasize that in this article I’m writing about aerial yoga, specifically. In my studio, Aerial Fit of Charleston, SC, we typically take beginners in a mixed level class, but only for aerial yoga, not for aerial circus.

The reason why we need a separate class for beginners when we teach aerial circus, is because those classes are focused on learning how to use the aerial apparatus for fitness and artistic expression. We use more of a nuts and bolts approach where you learn the basics of the apparatus first, and then you build on those skills. That means beginners have a lot to learn! But, once they’ve learned the foundations, they’ll be quickly ready to build on them. Having a class focused on getting beginners up to speed, just makes sense for aerial circus.

The reason we feel comfortable putting beginners into a mixed level class for aerial yoga, is because in aerial yoga classes we’re focused on yoga, not aerial. Since yoga is a mind-body practice, and the hammock is simply a prop we use to enhance the postures, that means much of the focus of the class is on the internal experience. In aerial yoga, someone gets more advanced by going deeper inward, not by getting into fancier postures. So, I find it is possible to teach a beginner and a more experienced student at the same time, and to cue the more advanced student in a way that’s accessible to anyone ready to go deeper.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is easy to do! Mixing beginners with more experienced students presents many challenges, so let’s dive into them…

Aerial Yoga Classes

I know that in an ideal world, every student would get the perfect class tailored exactly to them. But in reality, and in the context of a group class, there’s a lot we need to do in order to balance the class to meet every student where they are, and move them forward from there.

How do we do that? Here’s our technique:

1. Keep the class small

This can mean different things to different teachers. As a new teacher, I limited my class to a maximum of 4 students. There’s a lot to look at when teaching aerial yoga, and even more so when you have new beginners in the class. You have to see the bodies, the faces, the breath, and the energy each student is giving off, just like in a regular yoga class. But in aerial yoga, you also have to be looking at where the student is in relation to the plumb line of the hammock, where the hammock is on their body, where their weight is in each position, and so much more. As a new teacher, I felt most comfortable keeping my classes small, so that I could make sure not to miss anything important.

Over time I felt comfortable growing my aerial yoga classes. And now, I feel comfortable with a maximum of 10 students at once in my particular studio. The number can be different in a different space, depending on how easy or difficult it is to get a view of the room that allows you to see everyone at the same time.

But in general, smaller is better when it comes to aerial yoga.

2. Start the class slow

If there are new or unknown students in my class, I always start the class with very simple movements and sequences that don’t require any fancy hammock wraps or supports. In fact, I start every class this way even when all of the students are experienced. I do it because I want students to tune into their body first, before connecting with the hammock.

3. Progress the class based on observation

Assuming the start of class goes well, I build on what we’ve done and begin to add more complexity. With new students in class, I always leave lots of space for exploring the simpler variations without needing to move on to more complicated skills or sequences. For example, let’s say I’m teaching an inverted pigeon pose from Back Straddle. Many students, even new beginners, love this pose and feel comfortable in it. But, that’s not true for everyone. So, I cue the important actions in the Back Straddle prep (breathing, allowing the stomach to soften, etc). And I emphasize that in the more complicated variation, those same cues are still incredibly important. So, students can choose to either do the complicated or not, and either way they’re still working on the same thing. Keeping the class together energetically is so important! Especially to keep new students feeling comfortable, safe, and really feeling what’s happening in themselves, as they practice new and unfamiliar things.

4. Don’t be afraid to offer different options to different students

I will often say “If you’re new, stop here and focus on (whatever cue I want them to focus on). If you’ve been coming awhile and you’re used to how this feels, then you can explore (whatever more advanced option I want to give the class). But, I never do this at the beginning of class. Always, I offer different options only after the class has merged energetically, and I’ve had a chance to see how the new students respond to my instruction.

I never want someone to feel like they’re missing out on something. So, giving a beginner a task to focus on can keep them in their own body and breath, while the more advanced students move into a trickier variation. And, giving the more advanced students something to focus on while I keep everyone in an easier variation, also does the same thing.

5. Bring the class together at the end

Yoga is not about what pose you get into; it’s more important what mindset you get into, and that you are breathing. So, I always end class with a centering or breathing exercise to bring the class back together as a whole. Oftentimes after class, the regular students will chat with the new students, and tell them about their first class and how new everything was.

Even though keeping beginners all together in the same class might be easier, it’s definitely not the only option. If you have the opportunity to make a class specially for beginners, go for it! But also be aware that with the right approach, it is possible to teach a great class to a mixed group.

No two students are ever exactly the same, or need exactly the same thing at the same time. And since everyone progresses differently, these tips are important to keep in mind, even in a class where there are no beginners!

Unnata Yoga Note

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About the Author

Jordan Anderson has been teaching Unnata® Aerial Yoga since 2009, she is an Unnata Aerial Yoga Course Leader, and co-founder and director of Aerial Fit®. Jordan looks to yoga teachers such as Doug Keller for inspiration on grounding and anatomy, Andrey Lappa for energy bodies and Dharma Mittra for kindness.

Jordan is a firm believer that the practice of yoga (all 8 limbs of it!) can enhance anyone’s quality of life.

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